60 doses become hundreds: Doctor stretches monkeypox vax in South LA

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Marcelle Hutchins

A health worker prepares a monkeypox vaccine at a drive-through vaccination point at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York, U.S., July 28, 2022. Credit: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo.

LA County has so far identified more than 600 monkeypox cases as the outbreak grows nationwide. Vaccine supply remains extremely limited – mostly to those who’ve had a known exposure, and to gay and bisexual men who’ve had multiple or anonymous sex partners in the last two weeks.  

The federal government is trying to stretch vaccine supply by using a different injection method that utilizes a fifth of a normal dose. But the current shortage makes it tougher to get doses to Latino and Black communities that already have limited health care access.

Right now, Black and Brown men are concerned about the stigmatization of monkeypox as a gay disease, says Dr. Jeffrey Abraham, director and chief vaccinologist at Kedren Community Health Center

“That's definitely affecting whether or not people want to get in line. But just like the COVID-19 vaccine, we know that when it comes to vaccine equity, things like not having transportation, not being able to come to a clinic or make an appointment because I've got two or three jobs and other priorities — those are all the barriers that are standing between us, our patients, and their vaccines,” Abraham tells KCRW. 

He says the Kedren Health Center just received its first shipment of 60 monkeypox vaccines, but they won’t be enough to serve his community of thousands. 

Abraham says the shortage of resources reminds him of the early days of the COVID-19 vaccine program, but he is hopeful that the new strategy of splitting doses could help reach more patients, especially those without appointments. 

“Sixty really becomes hundreds of doses, and we may be able to accommodate walk-ups. … It's really how you overcome the equity gaps. You’ve got to meet people where they are, and that means … the time and the place that works for them.”

Abraham says the best way to get a monkeypox vaccine is through the LA County Department of Health, but he points out that’s not an option for some of those affected, including undocumented workers. 

“Our undocumented worker patients … they're afraid about being registered in government databases. Those are the patients that we're really trying to find and meet them where they are.”  

When more vaccines are available, Abraham predicts eligibility will expand.

“We know this is not a sexually transmitted infection. It is not limited to men who have sex with men. It's just moving in that network right now. But as we all continue to resume getting back to some sense of post-COVID normalcy, we're all going to be at risk if you're intimately touching,” he says.

Abraham notes that monkeypox does linger on surfaces for an extended period of time, meaning it’s crucial to disinfect commonly touched surfaces such as door handles. The virus can also spread via large droplets that may come from coughing or sneezing. But he says monkeypox is not the same type of respiratory illness as COVID-19. 

“Skin-to-skin contact prolonged over many minutes, sleeping in the same sheets, using the same towels, wearing the same clothes — those are where we're seeing most of the cases now. And so we can identify the individuals at the highest risk based on that criteria. It's just making sure that they know that they're eligible for a vaccine, and then getting that vaccine in their arms. Those are the challenges that we're trying to overcome right now.”

He adds, “[If] you're going to parties or raves or you're around people, having a lot of skin-to-skin contact, we really want you guys to be safe and protected. It's no different than the strategies we use for HIV or for COVID. And when it comes to monkeypox, be smart, play smart. Let's get vaccinated.”